Eat Your Way to Good Luck for 2017

 

pickled-herring
Pickled Herring

 

I grew up in Michigan, with German heritage on each side of the family. Both of my grandmothers were good cooks and seemed to enjoy the process. I remember the wonderful aromas of “bread-baking day” at the home of my maternal grandma. My paternal grandmother occasionally offered foods that might not appeal to some children. Oyster stew, beef tongue and pickled herring come to mind. I liked two of those dishes, with the chewy beef tongue (no pun intended) being a definite “no.”

Although I enjoyed the stew with curly-edged oysters, I looked forward to herring the most. I remember a heavy crock so large that it barely fit into the refrigerator, where Grandma pickled her magic on those small, silvery fish. If memory serves me right, the end result was a light, creamy sauce, filled with thin rings of sliced onions and luscious, thick chunks of herring. Although I still have a few of her recipe cards tucked away in their hinged, wooden box, unfortunately, I don’t have that one. We ate it cold, on crackers, small rounds of pumpernickel bread, or on full-sized sandwiches.

My grandmother passed away just before Christmas when I was about ten. Every year after, my parents would buy a container of pickled herring at the market and we’d share it on New Year’s Eve. For years, I thought we just did that in memory of Grandma. Eventually, I learned that many people in Germany, along with other countries, often eat this delicacy at midnight as the year turns over, to help ensure a year of good luck and prosperity.

Writing this reminds me to buy mine soon. I can certainly use some of that providence for 2017!

Another food for the holiday, black-eyed peas are displayed prominently on grocery store shelves these days. Although I’ve lived in North Carolina and now Texas, I had never tried this Southern staple that some people believe brings good fortune when eaten as the first meal of the New Year. The peas can be used in many different dishes, research showed, and I devised a recipe that works for me. The Texan variety is often seasoned with chili powder and hot sauce, but I came up with the following milder version in the form of a hearty soup:

soup-pot

Luck in a Soup Pot

Onion, shallot, scallion, leek, garlic, and celery (in any combination), sliced and sautéed in a deep pan.

Meat eaters, add bacon or ham (brown, or use pre-cooked).

Add approximately 4 cups of water and a bouillon cube (veggie or meat-flavored) to the pan. Adjust water for the amount of vegetables eventually used.

While that heats, chop a selection of greens: collards, mustard or turnip greens are traditionally Southern. I used what I had, which included spinach and large, red leaf lettuce.

Throw in the greens and any other soup vegetables you like. For color, I thinly sliced in a few carrots, and I also added several diced potatoes. I seasoned with ground cumin and fenugreek, for my milder version. Bring it all back to a boil, then turn down to simmer until the veggies are tender.

I cooked my dried black-eyed peas ahead of time and added them into the soup pot near the very end to heat through. These “peas” are actually beans, a legume, and double as a protein and a vegetable, nutritionally. They’re also available fresh, canned and frozen.

If you like eggs, you might want to try a trick I learned a few years back with a similar, clear-brothed spinach soup. Near the end of cooking, turn the heat back up and slide one egg at a time from a cup into the boiling mixture, spacing them out, a bit. They cook in place, much like a poached egg. Lift one out with a slotted spoon to check if they’re done.

Salt to taste. Serve with your favorite bread, although cornbread is most typical in the South. I ate a tasty helping and froze the rest for December 31, hoping I will at least be healthy, if not prosperous, in the upcoming days.

What food traditions does your family observe at the beginning of the new year?

 

 

 

Breathing New Life into the Memory of a Recipe

squid

 

Most of us who enjoy cooking have our favorite go-to formulas that are permanently tattooed on our brains. If you’re like me, you also keep in mind those great dishes you haven’t made in a while, knowing where to find the directions with a flick of your magic wand. Until…something goes awry. Your hard drive crashes, and all your bookmarks have vanished. You experience a fit of housecleaning frenzy, or move, unintentionally throwing out important folders. Maybe you lose half of your beloved cookbooks in a divorce settlement. Whatever. It’s a sad state of affairs, when you reach for the recipe for that squid stew you’ve been craving, and it’s totally beyond your grasp.

 
I recently pointed out to my younger daughter that deep-fried calamari, or squid, isn’t the only, or necessarily best, way to enjoy that particular delicacy of the deep. Now, where was that recipe that I’d made and enjoyed in the past? Nowhere to be found in my new Texas dwelling, over a thousand miles from where I had cooked it last. What to do? After fruitlessly leafing through my remaining cookbooks and anemic folder of saved recipes, I made a list of the ingredients that I believed the stew contained. Certain about the potatoes, clam juice, and squid, they found their way into my shopping cart the next time I visited the market. I then turned to the trusty internet with the help of my new computer. Surely I could find something that sounded similar. Not really.

 
None of the stew or soup offerings seemed even close. I did find directions for something called “squid with potatoes” that helped me along. This jogged my memory, reminding me that white wine played a part in the initial version. Along with additional water, I decided to add vegetable bouillon cubes that I already had, for the stock. Garlic and onions from that list of ingredients also made sense. I wasn’t sure about the basil, though. As I sniffed at the container plucked from my spice shelf, it seemed a little too sweet for what I had in mind. The clam juice bottle actually gave me an idea for the seasoning, since it suggested thyme for use in clam chowder. One whiff of that herb told me it was a “go”. Many of the online recipes involving squid also called for tomatoes. Unsure whether I’d used them in the earlier form, and knowing that I’ve pretty much given those up due to the acid, I decided to incorporate a few carrots for extra fiber and color, instead.

 
The end result was a comforting combination of old and new, and I believe that I like it better than the original! My daughter also enjoyed it, and one of my granddaughters even tried several bites, which is certainly a testament to its appeal. No more worries from me, about absent directions for meals from the past. Sometimes the new way of doing things is even better than the old.

All the Right Ingredients: Living, Writing and Cooking in Texas

soup bowl blueFiestaware dishes

After spending the winter in the Lone Star State, spending time with my two daughters and their families, this “Michigander/Michiganian” is ready to take the Texas-sized leap and move back here for good. We lived in this area years ago, while my girls were growing up, which is basically how they found themselves settling in this portion of the U.S.

Now that I’ve picked my spot and found a great apartment, it’s time to resume my writing and my cooking in earnest. Being in Texas got me thinking about making chili, recently, but tomatoes and I haven’t been getting along that well. Although white chili may not be original to this state, its popularity seems to be gaining force. I’ve enjoyed a few versions in the past and have recently done some research about “white vegetables”.

I found that these options sometimes are referred to as the “forgotten vegetables”, partly due to the negativity brought on by the selections with the “starchy” connotation. Granted, a few are rather high in carbs, but in moderation and with careful planning, white vegetables can be important sources of fiber, calcium, potassium, and a wide array of vitamins and other nutrients. I don’t have a “favorite” recipe, yet, so I’m going to present the possibilities for you to consider when designing your own!

“CHOOSE-YOUR-OWN” WHITE CHILI RECIPE

Broths: chicken, vegetable, or water; slug of white wine

Beans: Cannellini, garbanzo/chick peas, Great Northern, and navy (canned or dried; follow the package directions for dried)

Meats: Chicken or turkey (cooked and cubed), or ground chicken/turkey (browned); vegetarian version is great without meat

Vegetables (canned or fresh, cut to bite-sized pieces): Potatoes and white corn (staying aware of the carbs); turnips (lower in carbs and a consistency and flavor very similar to potatoes); parsnips and jicama give a slightly sweet flavor (parsnips cook quickly and jicama stays a bit crunchy for a long time); cauliflower; white asparagus; daikon radish; white mushrooms; peeled zucchini or summer squash; onions, shallots, and garlic

“Zip” (add in moderation and to personal taste): Cumin, white pepper (ground or whole corns), prepared horseradish, ginger, white habanero pepper (extra hot), yellow jalapeño (pale in color and medium heat), Santa Fe Grande (pale yellow pepper with mild heat), and salt

Toppings: Shredded white cheese, sour cream, and the white portions of green onions (sliced)

Accompaniments: White corn chips, bread, or crackers

Throw your choices together in a pot, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer. Enjoy with your favorite beverage!

Plentiful Pumpkins!

pumpkins-478178_1280

It’s that time of year again, where everywhere you turn, there’s a pumpkin meeting your gaze. Many of these winter squash are decorated as jack-o’-lanterns, while some of the plainer varieties repose as decorations that are more refined, or as actual food options at the markets. Often thought of as a vegetable, pumpkin is actually a fruit, because it develops from the flower and is the part of the plant that contains the seeds. On the other hand, vegetables include the leaves, stems, buds and roots of plants.

In recent years, pumpkins of varying colors beyond the traditional orange have been developed, with hybrids showing off shades of blue, white, tan, pink, red and green. No matter the hue, this fabulous fruit ripens throughout the summer and will normally reach its full size by September or October, thus the “harvest” time of year that pumpkin evokes.

How can authors use pumpkins in their writing? Setting comes to mind first, of course. A few well-placed pumpkins in your story or book can tell readers that it’s late summer or fall, whether the action is taking place before Halloween or well after, and might even offer a hint as to where in the world your writing is set. Using designer colors for the pumpkins in your novel? Then your book is probably set sometime after about 2005, when these became more widely available.

Pumpkins might also be used to tell readers something about your characters. Want to show that your leading lady or man is earthy, a hard worker, and probably likes to cook or bake? What better way than to show them hoeing in the pumpkin patch and getting a little dirt under their nails, or cooking up some pumpkin to use in a favorite recipe. Picture a couple pulling into the farmers market and lovingly running their interlaced fingers over the pumpkin options. Don’t tell me that scene couldn’t express fecundity, possible sexual repression or just raw sexual desire!

I’ve even used this member of the cucurbit family in my novel, Romantivores, which I’m currently revising. This portion of the book takes place in November, so I didn’t want any hint of jack-o’-lanterns hanging around. I’ve chosen to employ simple white pumpkins to line the sidewalk leading up to the stone building where one of my protagonists works. Not only can these white wonders indicate the time of year, but I also wanted them to suggest a less relaxed or homey atmosphere than their orange siblings, since there’s danger lurking nearby that is yet unknown to my main characters.

Last, but certainly not least, what about those books that include lists of recipes or deftly weave directions for tasty treats throughout their pages? Recipes for pumpkin can fill a cook’s needs throughout the day, from breakfast pancakes to tummy-warming soups at lunch or sweet desserts to finish off a delicious dinner. One of my favorite uses for pumpkin appears below. I came upon this easy idea one day when the bananas on my counter weren’t ripe enough for my usual lunchtime smoothie, and I found a can of pumpkin hiding in the dark recesses of my kitchen cupboard.

SQUOOTHIE (Squash Smoothie:)

1 cup cold almond milk (or your favorite milk product)

½ cup pumpkin (chilled is best)

1 tablespoon honey, or your choice of sweetener

¼ teaspoon vanilla

dash of cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice

Blend and enjoy!

Options: Ice, banana, peanut butter, cumin, bee pollen, or yogurt in place of milk

 

Herbs and Spices: an Affair of the Palate

I love having the power at my fingertips to lead a potentially good meal around the corner to becoming even better, with simple touches of just the right herbs and spices! What’s the difference between the two, you might ask…is it just the form they’re in, whether fresh or dried? Actually, it has more to do with their origins.

In doing some research to refresh my memory, I was reminded that herbs come from the leafy, green parts of the plants, while spices are derived from the bark, stems, root or bulbs. I’m always surprised if a friend admits to not using many of either, since my over-the-top collection of the dried varieties boasts about 50 little bottles neatly arranged alphabetically. Sounds like a lot, I know, but they all get used, eventually.

Fresh herbs are my preference, but they don’t last very long from the grocery store, and chives is the only one I have luck with growing, long-term. I can keep rosemary, basil, sage and parsley alive for a while, either outdoors or in, but the time is limited. I have a growing penchant for the pungent ones that arrive at the stores in their own little tubes, mixed with a little oil, like ginger, cilantro and basil. You may want to try these, if you haven’t already.

The dried combinations available in the supermarkets are tasty, too, like Italian, Greek and Moroccan seasonings containing herbs and spices that naturally lend just the right touch to foods from those areas of the world. The concoction that I wouldn’t want to do without, though, is Herbes de Provence. The high prices sometimes hint at being imported directly from France, but don’t let them fool you. The less expensive brands in the plain plastic containers work just fine, or you can make your own blend. As Peter Mayle points out in his book, Provence A-Z, there are rules in place that assure the resulting “recipe” for mixtures actually bottled in France: 26%, each, of oregano, rosemary and savory, followed by 19% thyme and 3% basil. I also enjoy a bit of lavender thrown in!

While using a pinch of that favorite “French” concoction recently, my mind started wandering to what “Herbs of Michigan” would contain, leading me to think about which ones might be tied the most closely to regional foods from this state. Better yet, what about a mixture particular to the Upper Peninsula, called “herbs da U.P.”, if you will! I’m sure the combination could vary widely, since immigrants including Finnish, French Canadians, Swedish and Cornish traditionally came to this part of the country to find work in the mines. A specialty that comes to mind first is the Cornish pasty (pictured below), that meat pie so well-known in the upper reaches of Michigan. Many pasty (rhymes with “lastly”) recipes call for onion, tarragon and thyme, which could make an interesting dried blend.

Based on your location or cooking areas of expertise, you may already have your favorites. You could even bottle your own personal blends, to have ready and waiting as you don your apron! It would be great to hear from readers about their herb and spice preferences.

pasty